Back-to-School: Start Spreading the News

As long as I’ve been working in public education, this time of year has always been very special. On behalf of the entire AASA family, we hope our superintendents and those aspiring to become superintendents have a fantastic school year filled with the creation of positive solutions that will translate into greater academic outcomes for our students.

I’ve been saying for years that superintendents are the nation’s foremost thought leaders in public education. Last week, our school system leaders spoke out about some very critical issues that directly affect the lives of our students. We need to listen to what was said and do something about it.

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AASA President: Huge ‘Gaines’ for Public Education

July is always a special time for AASA. Hundreds of superintendents across the country—some of the sharpest minds in public education—gathered in the nation’s capital last week to discuss some of the most critical issues in public education as part of our annual Legislative Advocacy Conference.

The meeting marked three days of invaluable conversation focusing on such hot-button issues as school safety, appropriations, career and technical education, the Higher Education Act, teacher shortages, IDEA and Medicaid. AASA members—individuals I often refer to as “champions for children”—made their voices heard by visiting members of Congress from their respective districts and states to share opinions on these important matters.

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Brown v. Board and a New Generation

As we continue to observe this month’s 64th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that struck down segregation in public schools, we must be mindful that much work still needs to be done on behalf of the millions of children growing and learning in our classrooms.

To quote Chief Justice Warren:

“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he (or she) is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

I couldn’t agree more.

We are now at a time when our schools are being torn apart by gun violence. We’re at a time when more than 50 percent of the children attending our schools are living in impoverished conditions. We’re at a time when we must scale up the dialogue in our country that we view every public school as the foundation of our communities.

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Nashville: A Community of Leaders

AASA’s National Conference on Education officially kicks off this week and I am pleased to report that the 2018 edition will be our largest convening in more than 10 years. This tells me that more and more superintendents and other public school administrators across the country are eager to learn from one another, trade strategies, and discuss what is working on behalf of the more than 50 million students who are attending our public schools.

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A Look at Two Prominent Private Schools in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

[Pictured from left to right: AASA Past President Amy Sichel; AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech; and AASA President Gail Pletnick.]

Just as in the U.S., there are both government sponsored and private school options available in Scotland. After visiting government funded schools, we had an invitation to tour some private institutions.

The Mary Erskine School (for girls) and Stewart’s Melville College (for boys) are schools within the Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS) private system. These schools are single sex from ages 12-18. The schools offer day school, week boarding or full-time boarding. Tuition for the day school is approximately $14,000 and full-time tuition and boarding fees are approximately $26,000. Other services are available for additional fees, including coach transportation to the school and travel experiences.

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A Look at Personalized Learning in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

[Pictured from left to right: AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech; AASA Past President Amy Sichel; Dochgarroch Primary School Head Teacher and Principal Sandra MacLennan; and AASA President Gail Pletnick.]

A visit to Dochgarroch Primary School in Inverness, Scotland was a true lesson in personalizing learning. Sandra MacLennan, the head teacher and principal, arranged an extraordinary visit that included a tour of the entire facility and visits to a music class, preschool and regular classroom.

During the music class, we were treated to children performing piano, violin, trumpet and chanter solos. We learned that the chanter was the “training” instrument for bagpipes. That was followed by children sharing traditional Scottish songs and dance. The students were kind enough to give their American visitors a dancing lesson. I am not certain one lesson was enough. In the regular classrooms, we saw children typing in Braille, others on a computer doing a lesson, a story time and a pre-school class having snack.

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Doing the Best with What You Have

(L-to-R) AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, Principal Louis Rojas and AASA President Alton Frailey.

(L-to-R) AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, Principal Louis Rojas and AASA President Alton Frailey.

Costa Rica – Louis Rojas is the principal of the San Rafael School, a small facility serving 114 students. Louis reports directly to a district supervisor that is similar to the district superintendent in the U.S.

Similar to the other schools we have visited, San Rafael educates preschoolers ages 4-5, kindergarten for 6-year-olds and the primary education grades 1-6. From there, students will attend “college,” the equivalent of high school for our students.

Uniforms are required in all schools as to eliminate economic differences. Their “college” is a six-year program where the first three years focus on general education while the last three require students to focus on either academic or technical tracks. They will graduate with a “bachelor’s” degree that grants them access to the public and private universities in the country.

Similar to the U.S., poverty is also a major factor. Forty-two percent of preschool children live in homes where parents have less than six years of schooling and more than 60 percent live in poverty. All of the schools we visited were lacking the resources that the principals regarded as necessary to meet the needs of the students.

Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming commitment to educate all children supported by administrators and teachers who do the best they can with what they have.

Dan is blogging throughout the AASA International Seminar, which is taking place in Costa Rica.

AASA Leadership Visits Costa Rica

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AASA President Alton Frailey with students in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

Alajuela, Costa Rica – In 1869, Costa Rica made education both free and mandatory for all its citizens. Lore has it that the country was experiencing economic hard times and could not afford to maintain both an army and a public education system. They chose education and today Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world without a standing army. They even boast of having more teachers than police officers.

We visited the Carrizal elementary school in the mountain town of Alajuela. The school of 600 accommodates pre-school through grade six as well as special education students who attend one of two five hour shifts, a morning and afternoon session. Teachers are only allowed to teach one shift.

Based on achievement, the school is level 4, with level 5 being the highest performing schools. The school year runs 200 days from mid-February to mid-December. Class size averages about 32 students per class.

Instruction is very traditional with students in desks facing the blackboard in the front of the room where the teacher delivers the lesson. Even so, Costa Rica boasts a 95 percent literacy rate among residents age 15 and older.

Alajuela is a coffee bean growing region surrounded by dense foliage and beautiful streams. It typifies the tranquility that Costa Rica is so famous for.

The children are happy to see us and look forward to practicing their mandatory English language skills with us. To a resounding cheer, I tell them that they are doing so well that I might take them all back to the U.S. with me.

AASA’s Final Four

SOY Finalists Group 1 -1This is an exciting time for AASA, The School Superintendents Association. It’s also an exciting time for school system leadership and public education.

In two weeks, hundreds of superintendents will convene in Phoenix, Ariz., for the National Conference on Education where AASA’s 2016 National Superintendent of the Year will be announced.

I couldn’t be prouder of our finalists. I had the opportunity to meet them during our press conference at the National Press Club in mid-January. In my view, we have four winners. I know it will be a difficult choice for our panel of judges.

One thing among others that impresses me about our finalists—they all have tremendous passion for what they do. Here is what they shared with us about being a superintendent:

Pamela Moran, Albemarle County (Va.) Public Schools: “Nothing is more important than the profession of education. We need to keep elevating that message. Being a superintendent has an incredible responsibility—to see that all kids get the best learning opportunities available.”

Thomas Tucker, Princeton City (Ohio) Schools: “This business is about improving the lives of our children. I stand with more than 13,000 committed individuals who advocate for the goals of public education.”

Steven Webb, Vancouver (Wash.) Public Schools: “This work is about transforming the lives of children, and cultivating hope and opportunity in young people. I feel so blessed that my avocation and vocation are one in the same.”

Freddie Williamson, Hoke County (N.C.) Schools: “My life’s dream has always been to serve as a superintendent of a public school system. Public education has provided me with an opportunity to reach my life’s dream. It means that I’m going to be an inspiration to others.”

The 2016 Superintendent of the Year will be announced on Day 1 of our national conference, Thursday, Feb. 11. Congratulations to these outstanding individuals.

I invite you to view our latest video where you’ll hear more from Superintendents Moran, Tucker, Webb and Williamson.

Dan Domenech is the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Final Day in Austria: A Time for Reflection in Austria

Dan Domenech with the AASA Delegation, Director Razidlo and a plate of apple strudel.

Dan Domenech with the AASA Delegation, Director Razidlo and a plate of apple strudel.

Vienna, Austria – AASA’s International Seminar is concluding and our school visits and meetings with education officials have been very informative.

It was after his visit to Austria that Horace Mann brought back its grade level structure, an organizational format still in use today. However, there are several practices in Austria today that we would not want to import. The country’s school day is much shorter than ours. At the primary schools (grades PreK-4), children are dismissed at lunchtime. The secondary school day lasts for about five hours. Meanwhile, Austria offers free programs for all three, four and five year olds, as well as full-day kindergarten. An idea we should definitely import.

At the end of fourth grade, Austrian students are sorted into two groups—those, who continue with an academic program leading to college (about one-third of the students) and those who’ll pursue a vocational track and apprenticeships (two thirds of the students).

From our perspective, this sorting occurs too early. It might be more appropriate at the end of eighth grade. However, Austria offers a free college education to all students, another great idea.

Stephen Razidlo, director of the American International School in Vienna, believes that many of the Austrian students attending his school do so because their parents did not want their children subjected to that selection process. Also, the American school offers a full day of instruction from K-12.

It was a great experience shared with David Schuler, AASA president; Amy Sichel, AASA past president; Bob Mills, former AASA executive board member; and Miranda Beard, president-elect of the National School Boards Association.

Auf wiedersehen!

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, is blogging throughout AASA’s International Seminar Delegation in Austria.